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Understanding Design Basics:
Line and Form

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

Blip…….blip…….. blip.  Up, down, up, down, an EKG screen displays lines, advising the doctor of a heart’s function.  Our perception and psychology is shaped daily by tens of thousands of lines, yet how many do we consciously perceive?  If we take our brains off auto-pilot examples of lines we might detect are the vertical line of a floor lamp or a fir tree, the horizontal line created by the edge of a glass table or the wiggly lines of curly willow branches.  We would also notice that lines have various characteristics.  They can indicate direction.  We follow lines on the road to work.  If we see a vertical object, our eye has a tendency to follow the line of the object up or down.  Lines also divide space.   A garden hedge or interior wall separates a larger area into smaller areas.  Lines can create an emotional response.  Zigzag lines feel dynamic and exciting, but can increase tension. Horizontal lines feel restful and soothing.  When lines converge or intersect they create forms, shapes and planes, of which many are basic geometric forms: circles, squares, triangles, etc.  Used in combination with one another they create more complex geometry.

As an interior and landscape designer, I consider line and form important basics of any design.  At the onset of planning, after information is gathered for the project, I develop a site or floor plan.  One of my primary considerations in a plan is circulation.  Circulation is a series of linear paths created by straight, meandering, parallel or intersecting lines – each taking us to destinations within a room, a building or a site.  Circulation can be well-defined by a wall or loosely defined by a piece of furniture.  

Ribbons of passage can be used to create an emotional response.  How do you feel when you walk down a long hotel corridor which has closed doors on either side?  Long corridors are always a design challenge.  Designers use many solutions to help break the corridor length into bite-sized portions that make the space more people-friendly and less intimidating (look for more on this subject in my next article on Proportion & Scale and subsequent articles about Understanding Design Basics).  Patterns of circulation create form that is readily visible in a plan or ‘bird’s eye’ view.  Spatial form also creates emotional response.   Circulation as a meandering garden path leads us around corners, creating mystery and curiosity for the person who travels it.  It also creates an opportunity for surprise, which can make circulation not only interesting, but also fun. 

Circulation can be on one plane or it can vertically take us to another plane via stairs or elevator.  Stairs create a diagonal, zigzag line that makes a space very vibrant, if the line is exposed, rather than enclosed.  Even without the use of color to accentuate the stair, light and shadow will express the form. If we create a diagonal or curvilinear path through a square space, it is more dynamic and interesting than were we to create a path parallel to one of the square’s sides.  Diagonal or wavy lines make a design composition more energetic. 

How comfortable we are with our own psychology plays a role in how we arrange forms within a space.  When we furnish a room, a common tendency is to fill corner spaces first.  Perhaps our psyche wants to round out spaces, possibly due to the “tension” that corners create (a corner is just a part of a zigzag line). 

When we consider combining lines and forms, we should combine them carefully.  For example, when there is a jumble of boxes, papers, etc. it creates lines and forms in many directions, which cause most of us to feel disorganized.  Well-designed spaces relate and balance a variety of shapes and lines.  To prevent becoming over-stimulated and assist us in thinking more clearly, create an orderly space by minimizing a chaotic arrangement of form and direction.  Having said that, my husband would immediately suggest that I make a bee-line for my “creatively arranged” office, in which I always seem to be in the process of creating order.  (Instead, I suggest that the incessant creative mind be allowed a little more flexibility.) 

Finally, in response to readers’ questions: “What is the difference between a designer and a decorator?” here is my favorite description:  Decoration is only part of a designer’s expertise; a designer is formally trained to communicate graphically to a contractor and to knowledgeably integrate architectural elements.  

UDB-Line and Form-1The horizontal lines created by the shelving are balanced with vertical architectural forms.



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UDB-Line and Form-2Basic geometric forms and linear accessories enliven this eating nook. The curving lines in the carpet provide complementary background texture and mimic the curved rail on the ceiling.